On December 31st, 1981, Judy Henderson was arrested for murder and the trial that followed found her guilty of capital murder with a sentence of life in prison without parole for 50 years. When speaking of that night, Judy says “Because of my choices of being with the wrong person, at the wrong time, I was found guilty of a murder I did not commit. However, I do not blame anyone else, I take full blame for my mistakes. God put me where I needed to be. He had a purpose for my situation.” Judy continued, “My purpose is to give back hope to those that have no hope. I am here to be a light to others that are in a hard place with nowhere to turn and do not know what to do. That is my purpose and my journey.”
Judy was the oldest of eight children. Born to a Christian family with a hard-working business owner mother, always dressed in heels and “to the nines”. Her father was present in their lives. Judy grew up, married, and had a daughter, Angel, and then a son nine years later. The marriage was abusive, and Judy found the strength to leave after 12 years of emotional and physical abuse. Judy moved back to Springfield with her parents to try to start over with her young children. But within months she was charmed by a man who appeared to be great at first glance, but with a dark side. 1981 ended with Judy in prison.
Prison was another world for Judy with its own language and hierarchy. Judy relied on strength her mother instilled in her, which helped her to survive a “hit” by a prison mate who agreed to kill her, WICCA spells, and many other otherworldly experiences. She clung to the lesson her mother taught her; you get up, you get dressed, be presentable and if you feel like the Devil is after you, leave your bible open. The Devil hates God’s word. And she did just that.
Despite the difficult circumstances, Judy worked hard and made a good name for herself in prison. She became a certified (with honors) paralegal, helping other prisoners write clemency appeals. She became a certified dog trainer, certified fitness personal and group trainer from AFAA (she stays current on her CEVs), and a certified hairdresser – with clientele including the warden and his family, other prison staff and fellow prisoners.
Perhaps what Judy is most proud of, in her 36 years of prison time, are the three programs she piloted and are still running today. The generational curse of families serving prison time and the vastly different childhoods that her prison mates experienced, led her to pioneer the PATCH (Parents and Their Children) Program. To create a safer, less traumatic experience for children visiting their incarcerated mothers, a trailer was set up outside the prison. Outfitted to look like a home with a TV, kitchen, living room, the children never saw handcuffs or guards: just volunteers escorting them to their mothers. Inmates had to attend a mandatory Parenting Program to give them the needed skills to mother the best they could from prison. Judy unfortunately was not able to participate in the program she created, as her ex-husband would not allow their son to visit.
Judy was also involved in launching the 4-H Life Program through the University of Missouri, which involved entire families to work together to make the next generation strong, give them leadership skills to break the cycle of serving prison time, or reoccurring prison sentences. Once a month, members within the prison and families from afar would gather for entertainment and inspiration.
Residents Encounter Christ, a Catholic Ministry, offered Judy and 12 other “lifers” a chance at a four-day retreat. This program was transformational for Judy and the other participants. Judy was a fallen away Christian, but this retreat rekindled her faith.
Every morning Judy would read aloud Jeremiah verse 29:11, posted above her sink “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”Trusting that words have power, just as God said, “Let there be light.” Judy knew she would not die in prison, as that was not the plan He had for her.
On December 20th, 2017, she was called to the visiting room, where she found Missouri first year, Governor Eric Greitens who told her, “I have very good news for you. Today you’re getting your freedom.” She fell to her knees and cried. She was granted immediate release and was reunited with her daughter, son, and grandchildren in a true celebration, which her two pro bono attorneys, one of which represented her for 34 years also attended. It took writing to seven governors asking for clemency for her to get her freedom: the number of God’s completion.
In 2018, then Catholic Charities of Kansas City- St. Joseph (CCKCSJ) CEO, Chris Ice was visiting with the Executive Director of Mother’s Refuge, a local charity that shelters and educates homeless, pregnant, and parenting young women. The Director is Angel, Judy’s daughter. Judy came up in conversation and Chris asked if he could contact Judy about coming and speaking to CCKCSJ staff. After Judy’s presentation on Hope, Chris was compelled to offer Judy a job, Judy laughed saying “I think I am retired from prison!” Yet here she is, Judy is a calming and warming light to all she encounters. It is hard to be negative or mad after leaving Judy.
“Catholic Charities has my heart”, Judy says. “CCKCSJ helps everyone, from all walks of life and it doesn’t matter where they are on their journey; they exist to help and give hope. Here, we can offer those in need a hand up and help them become the person they were created to be. I’m 73 now, and I know I will take my last breath here, working for Catholic Charities,” Judy smiles.
We are thankful to share Judy’s story of hope and redemption, but it will not be the last time you hear from her. Judy has a book scheduled to come out in July 2024, and is scheduled to appear at conferences and on national talk shows in the coming year. Judy’s life has been quite a journey. Judy says it best, “God put all my broken pieces together, and when I step back and look, it’s a beautiful picture! That’s what happens when you trust Him to guide your life.”
By Ashley Everett, Director of Marketing and Communications